Russell Moore asks what 12 books one would want to have near if one were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of one’s life. I can’t do it. For me, 14 is the minimum! So here are my 12 + 2 stowaways in other baggage = 14 books, in no particular order.
Goes without saying. Oh to have a lifetime to fully contemplate the 66 books herein!
- Prayer Book.
Although I’m not an Anglican, the Book of Common Prayer would be my prayerbook. The BCP brings faith alive through lively dialogue comprised of an intricate interplay between scripture passages, historic creeds, and countless prayers for every theme and mood and occasion. With the BCP, one is never confessing faith alone but sharing in the communion of saints through the ages.
For theology, what about Augustine? Athanasius? A one-volume summa of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa? Calvin’s Institutes? A one-volume anthology of Barth’s Church Dogmatics? I choose Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, a classic exploration of the formation of the Nicene tradition, the mystery of faith, articulated in a mode of faith seeking understanding. It is theology as doxology; to read it is to worship.
- J. R. R. Tolkien.
It would be hard to go without The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, but selecting The Lord of the Rings trilogy (single volume edition) is a no-brainer. This masterpiece for the ages is the ultimate literature of hope triumphing over despair.
- C. S. Lewis.
The Chronicles of Narnia (single volume edition) is my first Lewis selection. Sometimes children’s literature says best what needs to be said. I’ve not included Lewis’ theological or scholarly books, as much as I appreciate them, because literature feeds the human heart in a way that discursive writing never can.
- Paradise Lost and Retained.
I would need an origin story to keep my sense of history meaningful and real. C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, is a brilliant meditation on human flourishing even if one were stranded as the only human being on an entire planet. A single-volume edition of the Ransom Trilogy is available, so I would select that in part because of the human/animal and human/non-human friendships portrayed in the other two volumes, Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength.
- Paradise Regained.
If Perelandra is a meditation upon the Garden of Eden, C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, provides an imaginative vision of the future. In this slot, I almost selected Dante’s Divine Comedy for its comprehensive vision (and in an edition with notes by Dorothy L. Sayers). And Dante has staying power over multiple readings as poetry. Yet The Great Divorce narrowly wins out over Dante’s trilogy, for me, maybe, because it encompasses the themes of Purgatorio and Paradiso with a similarly compelling imaginative vision. OK, maybe Dante. Can’t make up my mind on this one. No, it’s Lewis. I love this book too much.
- George MacDonald.
I would want with me at least one book by George MacDonald. Slightly edging out his fantasy, I choose one of his novels: Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Wingfold consists about half of sermons, and about half of dramatic story. The story demonstrates faith in action in difficult circumstances, and I would welcome such reminders that God is good regardless of my forsaken predicament.
Living without poetry would be detrimental to one’s soul. How could I face the future without the poets who have accompanied me since my youth: T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, or Luci Shaw? Should I choose among various anthologies or thematic collections? Oh, so hard. The poems in Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons, would be well worth memorizing in order to meditatively recite aloud. Prayers are poems; poems are prayers. These prayers would sustain me through the cycles of the recurring years. But when will Malcolm publish a Collected Poems? And, oh, it’s hard to choose just one volume of poetry!
Stranded on an island below, I would want to become more at home with the stars above. My preferred choice would be Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb, Annals of the Deep Sky, but it’s 8 vols. so far and counting. So I choose Chet Raymo, 365 Starry Nights, a practical introduction to the night sky for the unaided eye which incorporates allusions to history, literature, and science in its brief daily accounts of the stars visible each evening. There might be something to be said for selecting a more comprehensive guide to the stars, but I have read this simple little book dozens of times already and I believe I would not tire of its nightly guidance many, many more times again.
- Natural history.
To teach me to live with eyes wide open to the wonders of the creatures below, I’m tempted to include my whole shelf of nature guides, or a one-volume equivalent such as Anna Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. There’s no Sibley’s Guide to the birds of this island, right? Nor a general natural history of the island? Yet, again, literature (more than didactic field guides or purely scientific descriptions) can awaken me to observe with the eyes of the heart as well as the eyes of the forehead. Then I’ll be inspired to create my own island field guides! So I will go with Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Other nature literature, such as Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, the collected works of Loren Eiseley, Walden by Thoreau, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, call out to me — but no matter how small the island I would discover myself to be inhabiting, it would clearly dawn on me before too long that my journey there is like that of a pilgrim, so I choose Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. No one writes more beautifully than Dillard. I will want her to teach me how to journal.
- Encyclopedia of human knowing.
My list omits entire sections of the library shelves! Where is the history? The science? The ethics or philosophy? A medical guide? Or a single comprehensive encyclopedia of current human knowledge? A one-volume Oxford English Dictionary in teensy print? What about my beloved textbooks in the sciences: Lehninger’s Biochemistry or Guyton’s Human Physiology, or a text in geology or ecology – or one of the texts I have taught students with, such as Masterton and Slowinski’s Chemistry or Hickman’s Zoology? These have absorbed years of wondrous attention in my life. But as textbooks, they are by nature snapshots in time, narrowly focused upon just one subject area of science, and even at that neither the last word nor the first word in their fields. To capture the true spirit of the natural sciences, flowing like a braided stream through the ages, perhaps I should select the most comprehensive single-volume anthology of extracts from the history of science? Hmmm. My choice is Aristotle, Complete Works. What Aristotle has going for him is that, unlike a textbook, nearly every subject area is here, from natural history and biology to meteorology and chemistry to logic and rhetoric, ethics and metaphysics. Yet unlike an encyclopedia, and much better than having all the right answers, Aristotle inspires me as an exemplar of one who strives to experience reality in its fullest extent, to observe carefully, and to think well across all aspects of life as a way of being. And while I shall disagree more often than not, arguing with Aristotle would be enough to keep my mind sharp. If faithful are the wounds of a friend and iron sharpens iron, Aristotle is a friend to last a lifetime. (If this one title counts as two books, then I would simply print out beforehand the one-volume combined digital edition.)
Something in art would be essential. Perhaps an illustrated edition of William Blake, or the collected works of Vincent Van Gogh or Georges Rouault? Or the most massive illustrated history of art I might lay hold of? I still remember long ago avidly reading through my first art book, Janson’s History of Art (back when it was in its second edition). While I’ve never displayed any talent in art whatsoever, on that deserted island I’d be doing my best to create in some manner, for I would have need of the interior dialogue and its expression that is art. (See Why?)
Could I create my own Christmas anthology? The mystery of the Incarnation, with all its echoes of joy reverberating through the long Christmas season (Thanksgiving to Candlemas), has been since my early teens the central animating annual rhythm of my life. Tales like Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” only scratch the surface of it. See Favorite Family Christmas Storybooks and Christmas Read-Alouds.
PS: I hope the island is Scottish or Irish, like the island of Skellig Michael. If it’s tropical, just kill me now.
PPS: If one adds up the purchase price of the editions linked to via the pictures above, it will become clear why I’ve been left abandoned on the deserted island in the first place, banished from disrupting our monthly budget ever again. 😂